HAMILTON — Montana's first statewide major election seems to have come off pretty smoothly, with nearly all counties reporting strong turnout for Tuesday's all-mail primary election.
We don't know whether pandemic concerns will keep postal carriers busy in November, but this week is seen as a tuneup if that's the case.
With all of Tuesday's voting happening through the mail, Montana became another of several western states to depend on the mail, instead of the polls. And the turnout was strong.
Statewide turnout nearly hit 55 percent, with 381,000 ballots from Montana's 696,000 registered voters. Of the largest counties, only Gallatin failed to break the 50 percent mark.
By mail, voting turnout was even more popular in the small counties. While some were also in the plus 55 percent range, others topped 60 percent. That made it a good pressure test for the counties, in case we need vote-by-mail again this fall because of another COVID-19 outbreak.
"This has absolutely helped, because we've run countywide mail elections for smaller school district elections, this was different," Regina Plettenburg, the Ravalli County elections administrator, said. "And it's definitely, I think it's been a good first run at it. So I think we definitely could build on it. But if it's at the polls we can do that too."
Even without the pandemic pressures, Tuesday's turnout and strong use of absentee ballots extends the trend we've seen in Montana, and mirrored in other states. A growing number of people like the option, and convenience.
"I mean, I think we're going to keep seeing an increase, just because I think absentee is going to continue to grow, as it has," Plettenburg said.
Plettenburg says one thing to remember if vote-by-mail is done again this fall is that you're not automatically signed up to receive an absentee ballot unless you specifically requested one. In other words, if you automatically received that primary ballot this time, and you'd like to do it from now on, you need to get on that list at your county elections office.
"I just hope voters remember they won't automatically get a ballot," Plettenburg said. "That's what I fear. They think one's going to come. And so, that's something to keep in mind for our voters out there throughout the state. Is that, if this does go back to poll, if you want a ballot mailed to you, you'll have to reach out to us."
For now, it's a chance for election officers to store Tuesday's results, compare notes, and collectively catch their breath until a decision is needed on November's voting process just a few months from now.